Bolivia’s masked shoeshine boys battle discrimination

Published BBC World Online: Latin America | 23.12.11
By Omari Eccleston-Brown

Every day thousands of shoeshiners scan the streets of Bolivia’s main city for customers, but they hide their own faces behind a mask.

Many of La Paz’s estimated 3,500 shoeshine boys, or lustrabotas as they are known, wear thick balaclavas and baseball caps pulled down low so they are never recognised.  

“My son always asks me why I cover my face. I tell him it’s because I don’t want my neighbours to see me, because they shout ‘lustrabotas, lustrabotas’ at me,” said Javier Mamani, 31, who has been shining shoes since he was 14.

He is one of the army of shoeshiners who every day are on the look-out in La Paz’s busiest streets for dust-covered shoes to clean at 30 cents (18p) a pair.

It is the weekend and a bright sun warms Mr Mamani’s uncovered face as he speaks.

But he and most other lustrabotas say that when they are working, they wear a balaclava or cap as a defence against discrimination.

‘Ant Army’

However, a small group of lustrabotas has begun to fight back, setting up their own newspaper called the Hormigon Armado.

It literally means reinforced concrete, but it is also a play on words.

“The lustrabotas are ‘hormigas armadas’, an ant army,” said Alexis Camacho, one of the newspaper’s founders.

The paper’s office is in the Bolivian Art and Culture Foundation, high up on one of La Paz’s many steep hills.

Every two months, 4,000 copies are printed and handed out to the lustrabotas to sell at 60 cents a copy, money they get to keep.

The income helps the shoeshiners with basic necessities, such as food and somewhere to sleep.

Some of them have even used the extra funds to attend night classes to gain new skills.

But they receive the newspapers on a condition: every Saturday they have to attend workshops on human rights and sexual health.

“Nothing in life is free. I give them this, but they have to give me their time,” said Isabel Oroza, the Foundation’s director.

But Ms Oroza said it is a constant struggle to convince the lustrabotas of their rights.

“We’ve even had the president of the Supreme Court come to talk to them, but I still feel we haven’t managed to change their way of thinking.

“But we seize every opportunity to teach them the three Rs: responsibility, self-respect and respect breeds respect.”

Bad habit

In reality, the lustrabotas face a fourth ‘R’ as well: reputation.

La Paz’s shoeshiners have a reputation for being petty thieves, alcoholics and drug addicts, an image reinforced by their masked appearance.

Early on one Saturday morning, a 13-year-old shoeshiner called Wilmer came into the Foundation clearly high on something.

His behaviour was erratic and his clothes smelt strongly of clefa, the industrial strength glue that many lustrabotas inhale through their mouth.

Many of the child shoeshiners are orphans, others just seem so because they prefer to brave the streets rather than abusive homes.

They turn to glue-sniffing to forget.

That happened to Luis Sanchez, who lost both his parents when he was 15.

“I didn’t know where to get any money. Some friends lent me the shoe shine box…Then I dropped out of school and I started inhaling.

“I’ve stopped bit by bit, but it’s difficult when you have a vice like that. When you’re high nothing else matters.”

The Foundation provides the lustrabotas with a support network and the older members do their best to guide the younger ones.

“My dad was an alcoholic and beat my mother. My life made no sense back then and I sniffed glue too. But coming here every Saturday I feel good about myself.

“I tell the boys that they can make something of themselves. I want us all to succeed, that’s the goal,” Mr Mamani said.

Still wary

Beyond the Foundation, the lustrabotas are also making strides.

They have formed 12 unions across the city.

Mr Mamani is the vice-president of the largest, which represents the lustrabotas of La Paz’s bustling main commercial avenue, the Prado.

This year brought another important step when the mayor of La Paz, Luis Revilla, formalised the profession for the first time.

He declared it a cornerstone of the city’s economy and a dignified job, vindicating what lustrabotas like Mr Mamani had always argued.

Despite these advances, when it came to taking his photograph Mr Mamani still reached instinctively for the protection of his balaclava and cap.

“My mother-in-law doesn’t know I’m a lustrabotas,” he finally confessed.

The signs are positive, but it will clearly be many years before La Paz’s lustrabotas feel able to drop their guard entirely.

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